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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

The Regulator Bookshop to reopen in early June

The Regulator Bookshop, the iconic Ninth Street store that has been shut down for the pandemic, plans to reopen its doors in early June. 

Co-owner Wander Lorentz de Haas told The 9th Street Journal that employees are busy restocking and preparing for customers to return in the next two weeks. 

“I think every staff member is just really excited to reopen and get back to showing people great books,” said Lorentz de Haas.

Like other bookstores, The Regulator closed in March 2020. The store was able to adapt to the pandemic by offering customers curbside pickup or delivery for books ordered online or by phone.

But while many other stores have reopened to the public, The Regulator kept its doors shut. That left many Durham bookworms puzzled. As crowds returned to Ninth Street, it seemed every other shop was open. Why not The Regulator?

“We didn’t feel in a particular rush to do it,” Lorentz de Haas said, “we just want to reopen right.”

Their top priority was to guarantee COVID safety. Elements that made the store unique suddenly posed challenges. “The veteran staff combined with the small intimate store during a pandemic became two huge problems for us” said Lorentz de Haas. 

All staff are now vaccinated and the building has improved air filtration. 

Shutting the store was also a wise business decision.

Their “survival strategy” was to return much of their inventory back to publishers for credit. Keeping a full inventory would be pricey, especially if only a limited number of shoppers would be permitted in the store. So they lowered their inventory, shut their doors, and focused on getting online orders to customers. 

“We basically converted the store into a warehouse.”  

As a result, the inside of the store had been transformed. Now, they are restocking and returning the store to its familiar layout. While they have not settled on a specific date, they expect to open in the first two weeks of June. 

In a time where independent bookstores are threatened by corporate giants such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, owners of The Regulator were pleasantly surprised at the quantity of orders they have received, especially last summer and over the holidays. 

“The support has been tremendous,” said Lorentz de Haas. “I did not expect that we would be doing as well as we did through the first of the year and even since then.” 

Ready to leave memories of COVID times in the past, they are glad to get back to what they are good at: selling books in-person. 

Bookstores are for browsing. 

“Any of the books we have in the store you can find online – no question about it, but many of them, some of the ones that become our bestsellers, you really have to do some digging to find them,” said Lorentz de Haas. 

But while The Regulator will remain the small, quirky place it has always been, it reopens to a transformed Ninth Street, with a not-very-quirky Chase Bank branch on the opposite side of the street – “Now we have the Rockefellers across from us.”

Despite the increased commercialization of the area, Lorentz de Haas said they see the store as the anchor of Ninth Street. “We just signed a big lease extension, so we’re here to stay.”

Durham’s incarcerated find spiritual support during COVID

Pastor Tim Coles appears on a Zoom screen with a golden cross hanging around his neck. Apple AirPods dangle from his ears as he navigates technology with agility, never imagining he’d be preaching from a virtual pulpit   with a church rooted in a 155-year-old history. 

Coles chairs the Agape Incarceration Ministry at White Rock Baptist Church. A sacred home of community, hope and spiritual wholeness, White Rock’s outreach ministries have provided emergency assistance for underserved children and families, fed people experiencing homelessness and empowered the medically disadvantaged through health and wellness workshops. 

But 66% of these programs were suspended due to the pandemic, according to church clerk Sue Jaromn. However, Coles’ ministry continues to reach some of the most disenfranchised members of the Durham community: the incarcerated. 

Of the eight total outreach projects at White Rock, the directors of seven ministries made the painful decision to put them on hold due to the nature of the in-person work. The school ministry couldn’t walk over to Pearson Elementary because of virtual learning. White Rock’s financial assistance program couldn’t provide grants because fiscal giving had decreased. The health ministry remained partially active, assisting with two COVID testing sites. And the missionary circle wrote cards to Meals on Wheels recipients

Despite the challenges of reaching people in jail during a pandemic, the Agape Incarceration Ministry has been the churchs’ most consistent, impactful outreach program during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the past, the ministry conducted in-person meetings at the Durham County Detention Facility. Now it relies on limited virtual sessions and communicating via handwritten letters from incarcerated people looking for spiritual guidance and emotional support. 

White Rock Baptist Church boasts a 155-year history in Durham. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Virtual constraints

The Durham County Sheriff’s website states that the detention facility “offers internet, in-person and video visitation at no cost to detainees or visitors.”

However, in March 2020, people incarcerated in Durham County were paying GTL VisitMe, a private service contracted by the facility, $2.50 for every 10 minutes outside their two free, 10-minute weekly Zoom visits. When balancing funds for court and bail bond services, this adds up to a steep increase in fees. 

It also makes external communication less accessible, which limits receiving steady emotional support from loved ones. Someone could speak to their partner on a Monday and their parent on Wednesday for a total of 20 minutes of social interaction the entire week. 

Agape Incarceration Ministry’s two-minute to one-hour prayer or chat session in person became a pipe dream. 

“The morale here [at the jail] is low,” said Coles. 

If he’s lucky, Coles hops on Zoom with someone at the county jail for about 10 minutes. Before COVID, he could counsel at least 15 people a week. 

But for the entire month of January 2021, Coles virtually met with that same number of incarcerated people. Most of his interactions come through the mail; he says he receives around 25 handwritten letters per week.

Pastor Tim Coles stands outside of White Rock Baptist Church on Fayetteville St. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

A much-needed outlet

Up until March 2020, volunteers from White Rock and other churches gathered outside of Durham County Detention Facility early Saturday mornings. 

Many of you are natural encouragers, and these brothers and sisters are in low places in their lives and need you,” says the White Rock website

Typically, the volunteers would obtain pre-approval by the county to enter the jail. They’d go through security and wait in a room where incarcerated people could choose to walk over to them for a visit. Depending on the number of volunteers, each person would receive anywhere from two minutes to one hour of prayer, counsel or simple conversation. 

“They need that outlet,” Coles said. 

Whether it’s an approaching court case or family turmoil while away from home, incarcerated people face problems that dramatically shape their existence. Coles says that “they are hungry for peace, community and fulfillment.”

Coles often speaks of an 18-year-old man he regularly encountered on Saturday mornings at the jail. 

“No one ever tapped into his potential,” he explained. 

Coles says he was doing “impossible word searches” for college-level courses and knocking them out. So Coles brought him more difficult puzzles every other Saturday to keep his mind sharp.

The man wasn’t able to be reached for comment due to the pandemic and the transient nature of incarceration. But Coles expressed the value of the in-person interaction that the young man had with the church volunteers.

“No one ever asked him to use his brain,” Coles said. 

Coles says the young man was denied the opportunity to flourish, and he did his best to encourage him to keep up the mental exercises, which helped him emotionally, too. 

“It kept him going.”  

Because of the pandemic, this type of personal interaction doesn’t happen anymore. Yet according to a Durham County Deputy Sheriff, incarcerated people in the county jail get one scheduled day of the week for visits, with “15 to 20 minutes at the most.” Coles and other volunteers who are fully vaccinated can drive to Durham’s detention facility and conduct a video visitation over a county-monitored computer.  

Despite the challenges, White Rock Baptist Church continues to serve the incarcerated the best way they know how: by simply being available.

9th Street Journal reporter Adejuwon Ojebuoboh can be reached at

Top: Pastor Tim Coles leads the Agape Incarceration Ministry at White Rock Baptist Church. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Community vision gives Belmont Park a makeover

For as long as the residents of Watts-Hillandale can remember, Belmont Park has been neglected. 

“I’ve driven by this park many times, and rarely—if ever—have I seen anyone in here,” said Chris Moyer, a member of the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

For years, Durham Parks and Recreation didn’t list Belmont Park in its inventory of parks and facilities. James Umbanhowar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, says it took him two years to realize that the park existed; even when he did, he seldom used it. 

Sometimes Umbanhowar would joke about building a pump track—a series of dirt mounds for bicycles— in Belmont Park. Participatory budgeting made Umbanhowar’s pipe dream a reality. 

Neighbors Guy Meilleur and Chris and Kaia Moyer discuss park plans on April 6, 2021. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Durham adopted participatory budgeting in 2019. The democratic process, where community members submit public proposals and vote on them, helps put the control of public funds into the hands of the people

Tom Dawson, a Durham Parks and Recreation landscape architect, says participatory budgeting is dependent on the needs of Durhamites. 

“Instead of us forming a plan, going to City Council and using our professional overlay, the people come directly to us and come up with an idea of like ‘this is what we’d like to see in our parks.’”

Participatory budgeting at work

According to the city’s participatory budgeting website, community members from all three City Council wards can submit ideas for public arts, recreation, health and wellness and other city services. 

Since its launch, over 14,000 residents and students have participated. Approximately 500 ideas were submitted in its first cycle. In early 2019, Umbanhowar did just that and submitted a proposal to allocate funding for a dirt bike pump track in Belmont Park. Umbanhowar’s proposal was one of 11 chosen by Durham residents. The community voted on how to spend $2.4 million total, or $800,000 per ward.

After Belmont Park received funding in late 2019, Dawson at DPR contacted Umbanhowar, and they collected neighbors’ opinions on the park’s reconstruction. Umbanhowar’s job was outreach, so he emailed friends and bike listservs, contacted neighbors and spoke to the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

Dawson was in charge of planning. As a DPR employee, he began designing the park’s pump track and ran ideas by both Umbanhowar and the community.

At least 25 Watts-Hillandale residents showed up at Belmont Park on April 6, 2021 to vote for the new plan. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

In February 2020, DPR had its first public meeting about the proposal in Belmont Park. Over 40 residents showed up and voiced concerns and excitement while DPR staff grilled hot dogs and kids drew designs on the asphalt with chalk.

“I think the beauty of [participatory budgeting] is we have residents who really care about improving their community, and just to know that there was a lot of energy and support for this project [Belmont Park],” said Andrew Holland, Durham’s participatory budget manager.  

“I think the park’s always been underutilized, but I didn’t really advocate for a change until it came up on the ballot,” said Carrie Blattel, a resident of Watts-Hillandale, who voted for the pump track. 

Holland emphasized Durham’s efforts to meet people “where they’re at”—whether that be online, knocking on doors or even handing out flyers at barbershops

A vision realized

On April 6, 2021, DPR held its final public and in-person meeting at Belmont Park. The park’s contractor had been chosen, and the pump track’s designs were finalized. This meeting was the last stop before the construction team began moving dirt for the pump track, adding plants and building a new fence. 

“I’m impressed with how many people in the community turned out,” said Sean Wojdula, a member of Belmont Park’s construction team, about the gathering of more than 40 people

Durhamites from the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood voted on a play structure to complement the pump track. Some voted in person; others online. The options for the play structure were a dragon, salamander or snake. 

Kids voted, too.

“I’ll tell adults, ‘I’m interested in what you have to say, but I’m more interested in what the kids have to say,’” said Dawson.

Leon and Vincent, ages eight and five, were excited to vote and be able to bike in a park so close to home. After seeing the different options for a play structure, they both voted for the dragon, though they also pitched wrapping a snake around the dragon instead.

By the end of the summer, Dawson and Umbanhowar hope the park will be finished.

A mockup shows plans for Belmont Park’s makeover at the corner of Albany and Sovereign Streets. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“[We] want residents to see projects being developed in their communities,” Durham’s participatory budget manager Holland said, adding that he hopes the community will continue to work in tandem with county staff. 

Mountain bike rider and Watts-Hillandale local Steve Mazzarelli agrees with Holland, and says participatory budgeting “gives the neighborhood more of a voice into how their tax money is used.” 

Durham is currently in its second round of participatory budgeting. This time, $1 million in funding will be delegated to COVID-19 restoration efforts. 

“It’s exciting. I wish they were breaking ground tomorrow and cranking this puppy out,” said Moyer from the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.

While Belmont Park’s makeover isn’t finished yet, Durham’s first round of participatory budgeting in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood proved a success.

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at

9th Street Journal photographer Sho Hatakeyama contributed to this report.

Top: Vincent (left) and Leon Koch (right) inspect the park plan layouts in Belmont Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Death of birds blamed on bird feeders and salmonellosis

Bird-watchers in North Carolina have gotten alarmed in the last few weeks as dead or dying birds began appearing in their backyards. 

Biologists and people in the birdseed business say the deaths are not unusual, but that people are just more aware of them because of an increase in backyard bird feeders. They say homeowners can take a few simple steps to reduce the spread of the disease that has been killing the birds – and now has begun to sicken people. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that 19 people in eight states had become ill with salmonella linked to songbirds. Eight have been hospitalized. No people have been sickened in North Carolina, but bird lovers have been urged to be cautious. 

This kind of outbreak happens from time to time. 

“Well first, let me tell you that salmonellosis is a common disease,” said Jeanne Mauney, the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Durham. “This is not a sudden outbreak. It’s not a COVID event. This is normal Pine Siskin disease.”

Falyn Owens, a wildlife biologist from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, says the salmonellosis that infects birds is commonly known as salmonella and “it’s the reason why we always clean chicken before we cook it and eat it.” 

Salmonellosis is passed by Pine Siskins, small songbirds. CDC photo

Salmonella is a common pathogen passed between Pine Siskins, a small songbird that migrates to the South from Canada every three to four years. This year, North Carolina has seen an influx in these kinds of finches because Canada did not have a sufficient amount of seed to feed their flocks, causing what Mauney calls “an irruptive year.”

Owens suspects at least some of the increase of seeing dead or dying birds is due to people buying bird feeders during quarantine. People were searching for new ways to entertain themselves and are now concerned when they see sick, fluffy birds in their yards. 

This also means that new bird feeder owners are unaware of the risks that run when interacting with wild animals, including the risk of pathogen transmission from bird to human.

One of the first steps to preventing the increase of dying birds is taking bird feeders down, although that can be an unpopular move within the bird-watching community. Feeders act as the perfect origin for a large outbreak. 

“It’s basically a feeding trough where multiple animals are eating off of, back to back,” said Owens, “You can imagine if you had a whole cafeteria worth of people without washing it in between, there’s a risk of contamination.”

Pine Siskins are also social birds. They travel in big flocks to bird feeders where there are more opportunities to spread pathogens to each other. 

After the initial break from bird feeders, Wild Birds Unlimited suggests more frequent cleaning with a bleach solution (1 part bleach, 9 parts water). While cleaning, it is necessary that people are extremely careful. Do not touch the feeders with your bare hands, and rinse your hands vigorously after cleaning. Transmission occurs when people touch their mouth after contact with the disease, whether directly with a bird, the seed, or a feeder. 

Mauney said to clean feeders often. “While normally we tell you to clean it monthly, we are saying to do it weekly.” 

Another option: plants instead of bird feeders. 

Native plants like black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers can be found at most nurseries and are a natural food source for songbirds. While the upfront cost is greater than purchasing a bird feeder, native plants require less upkeep and there are no subsequent purchases of bird seed to continue attracting birds. These plants allow for bird-watchers to continue observing from their homes, but limit the spread of salmonellosis.

“I think the best, most ecological decision,” Owens said, “is to switch away from bird feeders at all and move to a more natural way of attracting birds into your yard to watch them and to enjoy them and give them food and shelter is by providing food to them through native plants.”

That purple haze from a few streetlights? Just bad bulbs

When some streetlights around North Carolina began mysteriously turning purple this month, residents turned to Reddit for answers. They wondered whether the colored lights were a tribute to Prince, a nod to women’s history month, or the sign of an alien invasion. 

As it turned out, the purple tint was nothing more than some bad light bulbs. 

The streetlights, which are maintained by the power company Duke Energy, changed color due to a manufacturing error with the LED bulbs. It caused their white coating to fade with time, revealing a base purple color underneath.  

Other utilities across the nation using the same stock of lights are experiencing similar issues,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks. “We are working with the vendor to better understand the issue, and they are taking steps to ensure it does not happen again.

Consider yourself lucky if you’ve seen one. Of more than 360,000 LED streetlights in the Carolinas maintained by Duke Energy, only 1.4% of them contain faulty bulbs. 

Still, residents are noticing.

When Shawn Rocco, a multimedia producer at Duke Health, found a cluster of the purple lights near Sherwood Githens Middle School, his first thought was that purple may have been one of the school’s colors.

Rocco was inspired to document the lights in a video set to Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It wasn’t until he posted the video on Reddit and users commented that he came to understand the real reason behind the mysterious tint. It wasn’t what he expected.

“I’m not an electrical engineer … but I would think they would have tested these before they shipped them,” he said.

According to Duke Energy, the defect is limited to one batch of lights that was manufactured in 2018. The bulbs are only now proving to be defective as the white laminate begins to wear off.

Though Rocco speculated that some drivers could be distracted by the purple hue, Duke Energy maintains that with the lights still working, there is no safety concern. Regardless, field crews aim to replace all of the defective bulbs. The problem is, the company doesn’t necessarily know the location of each affected streetlight.

We’re working to replace them as soon as we identify their location. So we do appreciate the public reporting these lights when they see them, even as we are looking for them ourselves,” Brooks said.

Residents can inform Duke Energy of the purple haze – or any defective streetlight – by filling out an online streetlight repair report or by calling the customer service center at 1-800-777-9898.

Some may be hesitant to take action.

Several Redditors seem to prefer the purple hue. As one poetically put it: “the color … blends in better with the hues of the night sky.”

Photo above: The streetlight on Broad Street near West Knox Street has turned purple. Duke Energy says a small percentage of streetlights have bad bulbs that make them take on the purple haze. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal.

Roller skating experiences a pandemic revival

On May 26, 2020, working mom Cara August laced up a pair of roller skates for the first time in over 30 years. She swung open her front door and shakily skated out into her suburban Durham neighborhood, too excited to wait for her protective knee and elbow pads to be delivered. She was finally taking some time for herself.

“It made me feel empowered to make some sort of choice — to do something fun that was still safe and didn’t put anybody else in jeopardy,” said August, who works a day job in communications.

August joined legions of roller skating enthusiasts across the country who, over the past year, have strapped on a set of wheels and taken to the streets — whether in a city park or in a cul de sac. 

Cara August and her daughters gear up for a roller skating adventure. Photo courtesy of Cara August

The pandemic hobby has soared in popularity. Instagram and TikTok gained a whole new set of influencers: roller skaters taking over the internet, even appearing in Vogue magazine

In Durham, the activity became a way for locals to get outside and move during quarantine. That’s visible during a quick drive past open spaces downtown like vacant parking lots or Durham Central Park, where skaters freestyle moves across the pavement.

“We’ve seen a big increase in outdoor activity, and roller skating is part of that,” said Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) Assistant Director Thomas Dawson. 

With piqued interest among Durhamites, Dawson says DPR hopes to launch roller skating classes in 2021 or 2022.   

In November 2020, DPR announced its plan to buy Wheels Fun Park, a historic Durham roller rink. The city aims to revamp the venue into a community and aquatics center in the next few years, and Dawson expects the roller rink won’t be going anywhere. 

“Most likely there will be a strong voice for preserving the roller skate rink,” he said. 

While he doesn’t want to make any promises until hearing directly from Durham’s community, he noted that “the purchase of this historic site has brought a lot of groups out of the woodwork who love the Wheels roller facility.” 

Eddie Watson, founder of the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association, is excited to see this Durham staple stick around. Watson, who has skated for 30 years, is thrilled that roller skating is “in the spotlight,” mentioning how he has seen the sport pop up on Good Morning America, in Usher videos and all over social media. 

Eddie Watson (middle) and friends after a night of roller skating with the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association. Photo courtesy of Eddie Watson.

Popular again

Increased visibility like this has caused a surge in demand for skates, especially during the pandemic. By May 16, 2020, U.S. Google searches for “roller skates” reached an all-time high. 

“I ordered Moxi Skates and it took six months to get them because roller skating blew up so much,” August said. 

Global brands like Moxi and Impala claim three-to six-month wait times, frustrating customers who are waiting for their wheels to arrive. The Wall Street Journal reported that manufacturing parts from China and Taiwan have taken twice as long to be delivered. The popularity resulted in supply-chain issues, which were exacerbated by coronavirus restrictions, including limited production from U.S. manufacturing facilities

Roller skating dates back to the Victorian era when touch between young men and women was strictly forbidden. Socially approved skating permitted young couples to visit one another without the taboo of physical contact. Ironically, such social distancing is useful today.

In the 1900s, skating in the U.S. became integral to the civil rights movement. Some of the first protests against racial discrimination were skate-ins, where African-American skaters protested the segregation of roller rinks. As highlighted in the 2020 Emmy Award-nominated documentary “United Skates”, roller skating established “families” in Black communities, even after desegregation. 

Still, roller rinks continued racial discrimination by terming Black skating events  “adult nights” or soul nights. By redefining these nights to celebrate Black culture, regional and personal skating styles emerged. From Detroit’s “Open-House” Slide to Bill Butler’s “Jammin’”style skating developed in tandem with new waves of electronic dance music

Fun for the whole family

Gearing up to teach new and experienced skaters of all ages, Watson emphasized the physical and mental health benefits of skating. 

“Physically, it helps your lung capacity,” he said. “[Mentally,] a skate rink for three or four hours maybe takes you away from any issues—especially with good music and good people.”

Both The American Health Association and the President’s Council for Physical Fitness confirm Watson’s words. Roller skating causes 50% less stress on joints than running, is five times less dangerous than biking, and provides a “complete aerobic workout.” It’s also a great way to get children moving.

On top of the physical and mental benefits, roller skating is a sport for all ages. 

“I’ve seen six, seven-year-olds catch on real good,” said Watson, “and up to 80 and 90-year-olds still skating — whether it be just a regular shuffle skate type of thing or dance skate.” 

After seeing their mom’s newfound love for skating, August’s daughters, ages three and seven, asked for skates of their own. By moving carpets, clearing furniture and opening doors in her house, August created a small roller rink where she could teach her two daughters to skate on the hardwood floors.

Parents have been particularly affected by the pandemic as they balance work, children and self-care. “We’re all stressed and scared,” August said, noting that it’s been hard to find time for herself. 

According to recent PEW Research Center results, working moms are 11% more likely than working dads to say balancing life and work responsibilities became more difficult during the pandemic. With working women spending 50% more time on child care than their husbands, a new study by A Great Place to Work and the Maven Clinic says women are 28% more likely than their husbands to become burnt-out. 

Pilar Timpane and her toddler after gliding through an afternoon at Durham Central Park. Photo courtesy of Pilar Timpane.

Pilar Timpane, a filmmaker and mother of two, describes it as two choices at odds with each other.

“You end up feeling like you should either be doing something for your kids or doing something for your work,” she said.

Wanting to find a hobby that she could easily learn while spending time alone, Timpane took up roller skating after feeling empowered by women she saw skating on Instagram. She quickly fell in love with the pair of skates she was gifted for Christmas.

“I think of roller skating as a good time; it’s just joyful,” she said.

Reminiscing on their preteen skating days, both Timpane and August quickly caught back on. They especially love skating because it can be a solo adventure or a family affair. 

“We’re a family on wheels,” Timpane said, noting how she roller skates while her husband bikes, her three-year-old daughter scooters and her one-year-old naps in her stroller. When Timpane skates alone, she revels in the little moments to enjoy the physical activity. 

Similarly, August’s family is her “little skate crew.” But August also makes time for herself. Putting on her headset and zoning-out, she “grooves,” she says,”skate-dancing” on Durham’s iconic American Tobacco Trail.

The roller skating revival is one silver lining of the pandemic. August sees it as a way to connect with her kids, too.

“Hopefully they’ll remember and look back on it fondly. Like ‘yeah, that year sucked, but at least we learned how to roller skate.’” 

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at

Top: Before the pandemic, the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association threw skating parties throughout the state. Photo courtesy of Eddie Watson.

A pandemic year

Mark Cunningham and Bethany Faulkner, working with the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative, wait for people to pick up meals Tuesday. While a Riverside High School senior, Elijah King partnered with businesses to launch the program last spring. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

A year ago today, March 10, Gov. Roy Cooper rolled out North Carolina’s first emergency order addressing the coronavirus pandemic. No one envisioned all that has followed.

In Durham County, at least 210 people have died from COVID-19, with lopsided losses of life among Black residents. Twenty percent of people who have died here were exposed in group settings, including nursing homes and, in one case, the county jail.

Schools shuttered in March, with no teaching offered until summer ended. After months of online classes, only now is the school district preparing to welcome students back in person.

Thousands of people watched jobs, health insurance, savings and social contact evaporate. People deemed essential workers, Latinx and Black residents especially, faced higher exposure risks. Local businesses and annual events we once took for granted went missing.

With so much of value subtracted from this community, Durham residents found ways to build new things we never expected to need.

To mark this difficult anniversary, 9th Street Journal reporters circled back to people we talked with early in the pandemic. We asked about what concerned them then, and how things are looking now.

Elijah King, founder of Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative

At the start: Local partnerships help feed families during pandemic (April 26, 2020)

Elijah King says the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative has distributed nearly 50,000 meals.

Last spring, Riverside High School senior Elijah King partnered with local businesses to create the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative outside Geer Street Garden every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They distributed about 200 meals each day. With donations, the initiative was able to pay its volunteers, who had lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“No matter what, we are going to continue paying living wages,” King said then. “That’s what they made before, and that’s what they’re going to be making.” 

Now: Still going strong, the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative has served almost 50,000 meals during the pandemic year. King graduated from high school and is now a political science major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but he’s still deeply involved in Durham.

“I had several people cry and tell me their experiences and how much Durham Neighbors has helped them, and how much I’ve impacted their lives personally,” King said after a recent visit. “It was a very impactful experience.”

He continues working with the meals program and co-founded the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative, which hosts public conversations with climate experts and advocates for environmental justice. He also works with the N.C. Democratic Party in Raleigh. 

“Food insecurity was a problem before the pandemic, is a problem during the pandemic, and will be a problem way after the pandemic,” King said. “Durham Neighbors isn’t just a way to serve free lunch, it is a way to become advocates, to convey stories, to make sure that the powers that be know that this is an important issue.” 

Kathleen Hobson

Katie Galbraith, Duke Regional Hospital president

At the start: Duke Health shares some details on COVID-19 preparations (March 29, 2020)

Katie Galbraith says Duke Health has learned what community resilience means. Photo courtesy of Duke University

Durham County had seen just over 100 cases of COVID when Duke Regional Hospital President Katie Galbraith shared pandemic response plans with The 9th Street Journal last March. 

“This is something that we have been preparing for and planning for — for this type of event — for years,” she said.

Galbraith said Duke Health stood ready to add 500 beds in case Durham became the next New York. N95 masks couldn’t be found anywhere, so hospital staff had just figured out how to decontaminate masks so they could be reworn, she reported. Galbraith called on locked-down Durhamites to stay home and praised Duke’s new in-house COVID test. 

Now: Even as she prepared for an array of potential doomsdays, Galbraith — like all of us — couldn’t see all that was coming. 

“I just didn’t realize the scope or breadth, or tremendous impact that this pandemic would have” Galbraith recalled. 

Mask shortages continue, so the hospital’s decontamination and reuse efforts do, too, Galbraith said. Quick in-house testing also endures, now alongside a more accessible, widespread local testing network. 

Fortunately, other plans remained only plans.. “We never had to significantly increase the number of beds that we were using,” Galbraith said, crediting COVID-conscious Durhamites and selfless hospital staff. 

“I’ve learned what resilience means,” she said. “I’ve seen so many who have sacrificed so much through the last year, to make sure that we’re taking care of each other and taking care of this community.”

Simultaneously the most rewarding and difficult part of her professional life, leading the hospital’s pandemic response has worn on Galbraith. 

“It is definitely a weight. And I feel it,” she said. Her coworkers inspire her, keep her going, she added. “But it is a lot of responsibility.” 

That responsibility isn’t going anywhere. Even as Galbraith sees joyful faces at vaccination sites and steadily declining numbers, she knows the pandemic is not over. Seven patients remained in critical condition at Duke Regional on Monday.

“We’re still not out of the woods,” Galbraith said.

Jake Sheridan

Eliazar Posada, acting president and CEO of El Centro Hispano

At the start:
COVID hits black, Latinx Durham residents hardest (June 2, 2020)

Eliazar Posada and El Centro Hispano are working to dispel misconceptions about the coronavirus vaccine. Photo courtesy of Posada

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president of the Latinx community organization El Centro Hispano, told 9th Street in June that the pandemic had worsened financial and health care problems already heavily affecting Durham’s Latinx population.

County data from May revealed that at 14% of Durham’s population, Latinx people faced 34% of its cases, including over 90% of cases associated with outdoor construction sites. El Centro Hispano began distributing money to help cover food, rent, and utilities for over 600 families, said Rocha-Goldberg.

Now:  The $350,000 in direct aid that El Centro Hispano raised from donations has run out, said acting president Eliazar Posada. The organization now partners with local groups to pass out meals each week. 

Ensuring that the Latinx community gets equitable access to vaccinations is a major goal for the organization.

Language is a barrier to finding and getting vaccinations for older and Spanish-speaking residents who are less confident with online appointments and prefer telephoning for help, Posada explained. El Centro Hispano is advocating for bilingual staff on the county’s COVID-19 hotline, he said.

“The ideal situation would be for someone to answer and help immediately,” said Posada. “We know there are limited vaccines, so if I’m waiting for help, they might run out.”

Trust remains a critical issue for residents who are uneasy about disclosing their immigration status. “A lot of our community members still do not trust the government or university health systems,” said Posada. “Centro and other NGOs really stepped in to be an arbiter of trust.”

Centro is running a public information campaign to dispel misconceptions in the Latinx community about vaccine eligibility and requirements. With its three Triangle offices closed, Centro has pivoted to hosting social groups, cooking classes, award ceremonies and house parties — all online. 

“It’s not always about big festivals or dances,” Posada said. “It’s about folks connecting with people and not feeling too alone.”

Charlie Zong

Peter Gilbert, Legal Aid lawyer 

At the start: Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham (March 24, 2020)

A sign posted by Durham County sheriffs deputies before a landlord changes the lock. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda

Last March, a state Supreme Court order halted nonessential court proceedings, freezing eviction proceedings and padlockings of rental properties. 

“Anyone being evicted during this time is at a great risk, not only to themselves, but as a vector carrying disease,” Legal Aid lawyer Peter Gilbert said then. “The governor is urging us to stay home. It’s impossible to stay home if you don’t have one.”

But as the law kept people in their homes, Gilbert worried Durham would suffer a “tsunami of evictions” once COVID-wrought protections for renters expired. That sinister wave still looms. 

Now: “I’ve been trying to just get through day by day this whole year,” Gilbert said last week. “We’ve had many more people reaching out for our help, especially over the last few months. We’re doing our best to keep up.” 

The lawyer said overlapping state and federal government interventions stopped most evictions from March to July. When those protections expired, however, evictions filled the courts until the Centers for Disease Control imposed its own eviction moratorium, he said. 

Gilbert said the CDC’s order is set to expire at the end of March. Durham’s courts are scheduled to resume hearings for evictions on non-payment in May. 

Even with those protections, some tenants describe being forced out, “The tenants are using words like they’re being harassed, landlords are contacting them every single day, saying ‘Where’s my rent?’ and ‘You have to be out by Friday.’” 

If deadlines aren’t extended, the tsunami will hit when protections end. Gilbert estimated 20,000 of Durham’s 120,000 households will be unable to pay rent and could face eviction. That many people losing housing would reshape the city, he predicts.

“This is going to exacerbate gentrification. This is going to exacerbate the push out of poor, especially African-American families who have been the core of the citizenry of Durham for much of its history,” Gilbert said. 

The city and county plan to make $9 million available for local rental assistance. But Gilbert estimated that Durham needs $40 million to $60 million to avoid a major local housing crisis. 

Jake Sheridan

Jodee Nimerichter, American Dance Festival executive director 

At the start: Coronavirus outbreak cancels American Dance Festival 2020 (March 31, 2020)

In October, dancers performed on lawns and driveways in American Dance Festival’s Creative Healing Parade. Photo by Laura Charles

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Durham’s American Dance Festival canceled its six-week summer program of modern dance performances for the first time since its founding in 1934. 

“It’s hard to swallow, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Jodee Nimerichter, the ADF executive director. As COVID-19 cases increased, the future of ADF was uncertain: Where would funding come from? How would ADF adjust? Could live performances resume in 2021? 

Now: “It’s great to continue to know that, even in the midst of COVID, partnerships and creativity have never stopped,” Nimerichter said, reflecting on the past year. ADF is powering through the pandemic with online educational programs creating platforms for virtual viewing and commissioning local and international artists.   

“Coronavirus has been devastating to the arts because all the major venues have shut down,” Niemerichter said, noting that artists were lacking outlets for their creativity. 

Last October, ADF held the Creative Healing Parade, bringing more than 70 artists together to dance in driveways and on lawns while audiences watched from cars. In January, ADF commissioned “Untold Secrets of the Heart Chamber,” an online collaboration between South African choreographer Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

“Even if the audiences are not nearly as wide as I’d want them to be, it’s still important for artists to be creative, and for us to find resources to pay them,” Nimerichter said, thanking supporters for “the amazing generosity that has been displayed this past year.”

There’s more good news: ADF is hoping to resume live performances this year, by pushing the annual festival starting date to September — two months after the festival usually begins. 

“The bottom line is some of these blessings we’ve learned might not ever go away,” Nimerichter said, adding, “We just can’t wait to get back together in person.”

Eleanor Ross

Wendy Jacobs, county commissioners vice chair

At the start: County’s emergency order expands Durham’s stay-at-home policies (March 28, 2020)

County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs
County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs announces expanded emergency measures last spring. Facebook video grab by 9th Street Journal

Wendy Jacobs was at the forefront of drafting orders to protect Durham residents during the rise of the pandemic. Then chair of the Durham County commissioners, she helped launch a city-county face mask mandate and stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers. 

“You really should try not to have social gatherings of any type,” Jacobs said last March. 

Now: “There was no playbook for a pandemic, but I feel very good about the tough decisions that we made,” Jacobs, now the commissioners’ vice chair, said last week.

It is still crucial that Durham residents continue to take precautions such as wearing masks and interact at a distance, she said. Jacobs and other county commissioners are continuing to work on ways to enforce these practices even with several hundred vaccines rolling out each day. 

“These are the keys to preventing the spread of these new variants and getting people back to work, getting everyone back to school, and getting back to a normal functioning society,” she said.

With Durham Public Schools preparing to begin reopening next week, Jacobs said community members need to think about disparities that still need to be addressed. Between the affordable housing crisis and a steep decline in tourism impacting the hospitality industry, much remains to be addressed in the context of COVID-19. 

Clara Love

Kym Register, Pinhook bar owner

At the start: With concert cancellations, Durham venues livestream local artists (March 20, 2020) 

The pandemic was immediately difficult for businesses like Pinhook, a downtown bar that survived on its ability to bring people together to enjoy art. Owner Kym Register had to lay off the entire staff so they could claim unemployment benefits when the pandemic began. Register’s band, Lomlands, lost thousands of dollars because of gig cancellations. 

Like many downtown business, Pinhook was adorned with art that Black artists created last summer during racial justice protests summer after George Floyd was killed in police custody. Photo by Henry Haggart

Now: Register used Patreon to set up monthly subscriptions for patrons. They have been a huge help with making the rent each month, Register said. Since last March, Register has developed  digital Pinhook experiences, from Zoom karaoke to online courses taught by artists. That includes “Drag Makeup 101” and “the intersection of music, mutual aid, and protest movements.” To access the online programming, patrons are required to make donations, as little as one dollar, to Pinhook via Patreon. 

Gov. Cooper eased restrictions on bars on Feb. 24, but Register, who uses the pronoun “they,” decided it was still too soon to reopen. “Waiting just a little longer will be better for everyone,” they said.

Pinhook won’t open until they have figured out all of the logistics around COVID safety, Register said.

For now, Register is closely watching the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a trade association group lobbying the Small Business Administration for relief funding for venue spaces such as Pinhook. Hopefully, grant funding from NIVA by early April, combined with Patreon funds and the $10,000 loan received from the city of Durham last year will enable Pinhook to stay afloat while a reopening plan is cemented.

As for the band Lomlands, it has been a uniquely uninspiring year. Register initially felt guilty for not having a “transformative,” creative experience during lockdown. 

“This time period has been non-motivating,” Register said, adding that we need to “give everyone a break… We are all just trying to survive.”

Olivia Olsher

Daniel Meier, defense attorney

At the start: Jail worker died of COVID-19, but Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss (April 29, 2020)

Daniel Meier says county jail officials have implemented good safety measures. Photo courtesy of Meier

Defense attorney Daniel Meier regularly visited the Durham County Detention Facility last spring to meet with clients. He was worried when the Sheriff’s Office revealed that six jail employees had tested positive for COVID-19, without providing details about whether jail inmates and other employees might have been exposed.

“It’s a huge frustration there is not more transparency,” Meier told The 9th Street Journal then. “I get the reluctance to name specific names, but it is important to know as much as we can.”

Now: The Durham County Detention Facility has improved its precautionary measures in the past year, Meier said. He still enters the jail once a week and he is now pleased with the steps taken there to ensure visitors’ and attorneys’ safety. Detainees who may have been exposed to the virus are isolated, he said.

“They do their best, so that is what has really changed a lot,” Meier said. “They’re trying to keep the disease out of the jail and trying to keep it from spreading.”

Attorneys can now meet with clients over video when inside the facility, reducing exposure risks. “Back in April, we were still having a lot of the inmates sitting next to us, and there wasn’t widespread testing. They fixed basically any risk of exposure,” he said.
Meier enters the Durham County Courthouse more frequently each week. There, deputies question visitors and take their temperatures to try to decrease the spread of infection. It’s not unusual for Meier to be sitting in a courtroom and receive a call that a client will not be allowed into the building, he said. 

Dryden Quigley

Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, family medicine doctor

At the start: Battling barriers to protect Latinx residents from COVID-19 (July 29, 2020)

When doctors Viviana Martinez-Bianchi and Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti started Latin-19, a coalition of medical professionals addressing the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on the Latinx community, in March 2020, a dozen people were on the team. They had lots of issues to address.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, almost none of the public health messaging was in Spanish. The general guidance about social distancing wasn’t always on-target for Latinx households that included large, multi-generational families.

“Togetherness is usually a big part of the resilience of the community,” Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, a Duke family medicine doctor and adviser to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said in July. “And in this case, it has actually acted against them. Because the virus loves that kind of environment.” 

A patient held an umbrella for Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi while she administered a coronavirus test in July. Martinez-Bianchi co-founded Latin-19 to respond to a high rate of COVID-19 among Durham’s Latinx residents. Photo by Henry Haggart

Now: The Latin-19 coalition has grown to over 600 members. The group has initiated efforts throughout North Carolina to bring adequate COVID-19 healthcare and information to Latinx communities. 

Factors such as fears over data security, immigration status repercussions, lack of Spanish and culturally appropriate messaging, as well as unfairly located testing sites continue to prevent Latinx people from accessing COVID-19 resources, said Martinez-Bianchi. However, she is hopeful that information campaigns via social media, Latinx radio stations, faith leaders and news media allies are encouraging Latinx people to seek out the vaccine. 

According to data made public by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, five in 100 Hispanic people in North Carolina have received their first doses, while more than 17 in 100 non-Hispanic people have received theirs. Latin-19 is closing the gap one step at a time. 

Since the vaccine became available in North Carolina in December, Latin-19 has focused on building trust in the vaccine and overcoming access barriers by hosting vaccine drives in trusted community centres, such as the Latino Community Credit Union. Latin-19 has vaccinated over 1200 Latinx people through partnerships with North Carolina organizations, health departments and faith leaders, said Martinez-Bianchi. 

“Lots of good things have happened since the article,” said Martinez-Bianchi, referring to the 9th Street Journal’s coverage of Latin-19 in July last year

For Latin-19, the work won’t stop when the pandemic is over. 

“Our goal,” Martinez-Bianchi said, “ is to continue to work and create a Latinx center for excellence in Latinx health.”  

Olivia Olsher

Steve Schewel, Durham mayor 

At the start: COVID-19 Q&A: Mayor asks residents to keep distance but help each other (March 20, 2020)

Mayor Schewel while creating a video messages to Durham residents about the need to stay home to stay safe from the new coronavirus. Photo from the City of Durham

One year ago, Mayor Steve Schewel was tasked with bringing the city of Durham together in a time of turmoil. Already reeling from a cyberattack on local government computers, Schewel worked overtime to collaborate with other leaders to address the pandemic’s impact on homeless people, parents and children whose schools were closed, and essential workers who needed childcare. He implored residents to adopt social distancing, wear masks, and hold each other accountable for slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have got to act now, before we look back and regret that we didn’t act soon enough and find out that this virus has ravaged our community. The earlier we act, the more power we have to stop the spread of the virus,” Schewel said.

Now: Schewel grieves for more than 200 lives lost in Durham from COVID-19 over the past year, and he is conscious that “there’s a lot of suffering.” 

“There are businesses that are not going to come back, and people have lost their jobs. It’s going to take a long time to really get the recovery that we need, and we have to really remain supportive of all of our folks who were in those situations,” he said.

Schewel said he is impressed by Durham residents’ ability to care for one another, and by the “remarkable” way that the city’s residents have organized to feed thousands of school children, fight for eviction moratoriums, and provide students with online learning and internet access. 

“We had the first mask mandate placed, two months before the state mandated it – that saved a lot of lives.”

Now, he wants residents to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, if the city can just continue to work hard on equitable vaccine distribution. 

“Our ability to crush this virus is almost within our grasp,” Schewel said. “Vaccines are coming fast and furious now, and we need to make sure that everyone, when their time comes, gets the vaccine. And we need to make sure that our marginalized and vulnerable communities have the vaccines available to them.”

Rebecca Schneid

Martha Hoelzer, freelance photographer and instructor 

At the start: Virtual arts and exercise classes offer innovation and community (April 9, 2020)

Martha Hoelzer taught photography classes on Zoom. Photo by Randy Young

Martha Hoelzer, who runs A Breath of Fresh Air Photography, quickly adapted to self-isolation. She began offering photography lessons over Zoom and sought to “reframe the current situation of whatever we’re having to face”—training her students’ composition and perspective skills to combat the monotony of pandemic restrictions.  

Now: The past twelve months pushed Hoelzer to enact her plans—to work on projects that had been brewing in the back of her mind. Hoelzer has spent the last few months developing new workshops and planning the release of her art show.

“If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would not have reached out to see if kids wanted to do photography last year.” she said. 

On New Year’s Day, she began a 30-day mindfulness workshop on Facebook. Hoelzer promoted introspection, self-care, and the accessibility of photography by focusing on a different creative element each day.

While unforeseen triumphs like Hoelzer’s workshops sprouted from COVID, her art also took a hit. 

Hoelzer’s exhibition on traumatic brain injury was supposed to happen last March. “The images literally got hung, and then COVID basically shut down everything that weekend.” 

But twelve months later, Hoelzer’s photography collages will be released to the public. Whether virtual or in small, socially distanced groups — the details are still being worked out — Hoezler is excited to safely present her award-winning art show. 

Eleanor Ross

John Moore, yoga teacher 

At the start: The board: cancellations, uncertainty, and hope on a bulletin board on 9th Street (March 22, 2020)

A poster promoting Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma remained posted on the exterior of a Ninth Street building after the pandemic cancelled live events in Durham. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

Last March John Moore broke the unhappy news to Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma that his weekend visit to Durham was canceled. The lama was stopping by to host classes on the practices of Tibetan Yogas of Body and Mind, sponsored by Moore — a Durham-based yoga practitioner and teacher. Moore held a clement outlook amidst stormy times.

“Although I was certainly disappointed that the workshop had to be canceled,” Moore said then, “it also provides an opportunity to practice contentment and to gracefully accept whatever life offers.” 

Now: As the year passed, Moore clung to that graceful acceptance. Four seasons of loss have brought him “a deeper level of understanding of suffering,” he said. Now he knows, like he could have never known before, “everyone has pain.”

He describes the year as one of “profound change,” Moore lost three loved ones — two died of COVID, and another of pancreatic cancer. As yoga practices halted, Moore hesitated to move classes online, feeling it was an inauthentic translation of his teaching. He moved out of his home, sold his studio, and stopped teaching yoga after 33 years.

Moore’s conscious recognition of life’s inevitable pain has reinforced his goals to help others through these struggles with a continued encouragement of acceptance. 

He has used this understanding to navigate and embrace his year of significant changes. The yogi has a new grandson, Asa and has moved into a new home in Henderson, 40 miles north of Durham. He has started a garden that he hopes will help feed hungry people in his new community. 

He has started with figs and blackberries and will soon add vegetables. “I strive to empower individuals, through yoga or through food,” Moore says, “to nourish them.” 

Carmela Guaglianone

Despite isolation, yoga keeps people in community

The sky was pitch black, but Hannah Slocum was on the move. Rolling out her purple yoga mat and cueing a new playlist, she turned on her Zoom camera and led a yoga class to the rising sun. 

Slocum’s 6:30 a.m. virtual class via Yoga off East drew six online participants. Even her mother tuned in from Massachusetts. It felt like much of the world was still asleep as the sky turned from pink to blue. But Slocum, bright and attentive, slowly guided her students through each movement. Her instructions: “do whatever feels good in your body this morning.” 

With over 36 million people practicing yoga regularly in the United States, the mental health benefits of yoga are proven. According to Yoga Alliance, 86% of people in the U.S. who practice yoga said it reduced their stress; 67% says it makes them feel better emotionally.  

The global pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, by June 2020, 40% of adults in the U.S. struggled with mental health or substance abuse.

Yoga Off East instructor Cat Rudolph breathes through an outdoor yoga session last Friday at Oval Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“The world expects us to function as is, and just keep going as is,” said Stephany Mejia, a Triangle-based therapist and registered yoga instructor. “But the reality is that our functioning has been limited—[especially] living through a pandemic.”

Through her practice as a therapist and social worker, Mejia encourages her clients to practice yoga to help them live in a moment outside of their heads, adding that “yoga isn’t about debating the thoughts. It’s about being with the body.” 

Durham’s yoga community has adapted with socially distanced alternatives to meet people where they are—at home. Most studios hold weekly sessions online.

“Yoga is an invitation to set aside judgment and inner criticism,” said Kathryn Smith, owner of Yoga off East. “It’s an invitation to meet yourself where you are without trying to fix anything.”

Aside from Slocum’s online class, Yoga Off East also holds outdoor, socially distanced classes at Oval Park.

“The whole point of a studio is to meet people where they are,” Smith said. “If people aren’t ready to practice [in-person] in the studio, we’ll meet you at home.”

Yoga Off East offers small, socially distanced yoga classes on tennis courts at Oval Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

With the pandemic’s restrictions, some independent yoga instructors created entirely new virtual studios. Shakira Bethea, an independent yoga teacher and massage therapist in Durham, began an online studio focused on community building and healing. 

Partnering with Sahaja Space, a yoga studio in Durham’s Lakewood neighborhood, Bethea begins each morning at 7:30 a.m. by either teaching or joining in Collective Care, a daily yoga class she began to combat stress and “bring people to their center” during the 2020 presidential election. It continued blossoming long afterward into a community of up to 15 individuals. They begin each day with active yoga poses and meditation exercises.

Bethea explained that creating a “small, virtual space” offers a collective way to alleviate extra anxieties brought on by the pandemic and current affairs. It’s a space where, Bethea said, someone can help people “take on all the fear and worry” they harbor internally and “share it so you don’t have to walk with it by yourself.”

Bethea also offers a sliding scale payment system, with monthly prices as low as five dollars.

“Once we can take care of ourselves, we can have more care and more love for the people around us,” Bethea said. 

According to Harvard Medical School, stressful situations trigger the “fight or flight response,” leaving people stuck in a trauma-based response system. 

“If we don’t regulate our nervous system, some of the consequences are chronic health conditions,” said Mejia, the therapist. 

This can include persistent anxiety and other related symptoms that have increased for many people in 2020. Mejia explained that when we are anxious, depressed, or worried, our bodies respond by increasing production of cortisol, the stress hormone. “[That] can result in a constant state of ‘I can’t calm down,’” she said.

Rudolph’s students cool down at the end of their yoga session. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

According to a study published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, yoga reduces cortisol levels, which can decrease stress and bring relief in depression.

But achieving those benefits requires patience, a challenge Smith at Yoga Off East quickly realized the first time she practiced yoga 21 years ago. 

“I didn’t like it at all,” she said. “I remember constantly looking at my watch. I was used to having a pretty full schedule and to step outside of that and be quiet and still—I found [that] extremely difficult.”

But after a few months, Smith began to experience yoga’s positive mental health impacts. She encourages newcomers to give it a try and to let go of perfectionism, explaining that yoga includes different positions for all bodies that can shift from practice to practice.

For example, one can choose to relax and refocus in a recovery position like downward dog, and later activate the muscles in a more active revolved chair pose. Smith said that with any position or yoga session, “you can add, subtract, make it yours.” 

As the sun rose through Slocum’s yoga session last week, she asked the class: “how can you, yourself, best show up to meet these times, to meet these circumstances?” 

For local yogis, the practice is as much about self-care as it is about collective support and healing. Bethea recalled how her yoga community supported her when she couldn’t make it to class during her parents’ bout with COVID-19. They sent her homemade food and care packages and lit candles during a guided meditation while her family healed.

“There’s so much isolation right now,” Bethea said. “[Yoga helps you] remember you’re a human here having this experience.” 

For Smith, that’s the beauty of any collective yoga practice—online or offline. 

“Two people can show up at a class having different needs and walk back into the world together,” she said. 

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at

At top: Yoga students strike the same poses outdoors that they would make in a studio during an outdoor class. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

How the Blue Corn Cafe survived the year of COVID-19

At the Blue Corn Cafe, co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios keeps a close eye on her servers’ hands. When she trains them, her directions are clear:

“Don’t touch your hair. Don’t touch your eyes. Don’t touch your mouth.” 

In the age of COVID-19, these things matter. From the location of her servers’ hands to the menu, the pandemic has forced Martini-Rios to make adjustments to keep her restaurant afloat, her employees safe and her customers happy. 

“I’m working harder today than I have since I’ve opened this restaurant,” she said. “This has never happened to any business before in my lifetime.”

“I’m working harder today than I have since I’ve opened this restaurant,” says co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Martini-Rios and her husband Antonio Rios opened the restaurant on 9th Street in 1997. He is the head chef. They run the business together. Their goal is to provide customers with authentic Latin-American food like slow-roasted pork barbacoa or the house favorite, the Blue Corn quesadilla. 

Everything changed a year ago. As the coronavirus began to spread, Gov. Roy Cooper prohibited indoor dining and Durham shut down. Rios was caught off guard. She had to rethink the way she’d run her restaurant. 

“I knew I had to get back out,” said Martini-Rios, a lively woman who wears her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. “So, how do I make the biggest impact on my community? How can I still bring income in? And how can I try and keep some people employed.”

Almost immediately, Martini-Rios furloughed a majority of her kitchen staff, encouraging them to file for unemployment benefits rather than rely on the restaurant’s suddenly unpredictable takeout revenue.

She often had to improvise. When takeout orders started picking up, her sons pitched in. Her 15-year-old worked the line in the kitchen, and her 20-year-old began working up front waiting tables. Blue Corn also prepared meals to be delivered to workers at Durham hospitals and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, courtesy of the city as well as corporate sponsors and the restaurant itself. 

“We’ve all just taken on different roles,” she said.

The challenging times have meant the cafe had to scale back its ambitious efforts to be a green business. Martini-Rios said they have stopped composting, rethought menu offerings and reverted to plasticware instead of plant-based utensils.

“It’s not a great decision,” she said. “It breaks my heart to hand somebody a plastic straw, but I have to make tough decisions.”

When the state allowed indoor dining to resume June 1, she reopened with new safety measures. She put hand sanitizer bottles throughout the dining room, eucalyptus soap in the bathrooms, and scented candles on the counters to make people feel safe and welcome. Salt and pepper shakers were removed from tables along with all other condiments, now available upon request, to limit the number of surfaces customers could touch.

“We have to be particular because people are on edge,” she said. “It’s my job to look at the small things that make you feel comfortable.” 

Blue Corn Cafe’s assistant manager, Mikayla Brooks, works to ensure that customers are aware of the restaurant’s sanitary efforts. 

“I tell the servers to make sure people see that their stuff is being sanitized because if they see it, they know that we’re putting in the time,” she said. “And if we’re doing it when they’re here, they’ll know that we’re doing it when they’re not here too.”

Salt and pepper shakers were removed from tables and there’s now plenty of hand sanitizer. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

In previous years, holiday dinners at the Blue Corn Cafe have featured live bands with singers strolling through the restaurant. Now, the music is recorded and comes from the overhead speaker system.

Martini-Rios, who just turned 46, was born in Florida and grew up in between Italy and New Jersey with a family that loved playing soccer and cooking together. As she talks about her childhood, her eyes light up behind her glasses. 

“We’re Italian people,” she said. “Everything we do is based on what we’re eating.”

Martini-Rios went to the University of New Hampshire with pre-med plans. Shortly after graduating, she moved to North Carolina to join a women’s soccer league and started waiting tables at a local restaurant. That’s where she met Antonio, who was the head chef. 

Blue Corn Cafe co-owner and head chef Antonio Rios. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

As her passion for the kitchen simmered again, her plans for medical school faded, and she realized how much she enjoyed the restaurant business. Her life-long love of cooking and Antonio’s mastery of his native Mexican cuisine made them the perfect pair to open Blue Corn Cafe. They’ve never looked back. 

Still, the year of COVID-19 has interrupted some of her dreams. 

Martini-Rios had begun to save money to buy herself a Porsche. Once the pandemic hit, that was put on hold.

“That Porsche went into holding all of this together. My new Porsche is Blue Corn is still open,” she said.

The demands brought on by the pandemic mean Martini-Rios rarely has free time.

“That doesn’t exist right now. We’re understaffed, overworked, underpaid … underappreciated sometimes, too.”

Martini-Rios feels under-appreciated primarily by Durham officials.  

Though she was awarded a $10,000 grant from the city on July 2, she was unable to use it in the way she had hoped. She wanted to use the money to build a back deck and a seating area along 9th Street, but the permits that she applied for were all denied by the city, leaving Blue Corn Cafe with insufficient COVID-safe outdoor dining options.  

Instead, the money went towards the installation of HEPA air filters throughout the restaurant, personal protection equipment for the Blue Corn Cafe staff members, and to design a new online ordering platform. 

“The money was well-spent,” Martini-Rios said. “But that grant did not keep me open. If (the city) thinks that’s the case they’re sorely mistaken.”

Martini-Rios is grateful for the support of Blue Corn’s customers. As vaccinations increase throughout Durham, she is eager to welcome more of them back into her restaurant.

“When people are inoculated, they can start to get out and help these small businesses get back on their feet. They are going to be such a vital part of our resurrection of this city.”

The Blue Corn Cafe. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Photo at top: As the coronavirus shutdown disrupted her business, Blue Corn Cafe co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios adapted, trying to keep as many workers employed as she could. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Best of 2020: Storytelling

In addition to covering news, 9th Street Journal reporters delivered memorable tales in 2020.

They discovered and developed these pieces while reporting on the pandemic, a dramatic campaign season and always interesting Durham.

In our final Best of 2020 feature, here’s some of our finest storytelling this year:

Flyers as relics

After coronavirus risks cancelled gatherings we still miss in Durham, flyers promoting live events lingered outside a closed shop on Ninth Street. Curious about what organizers and performers did instead, Carmela Guaglianone tracked some down.

Mascot mutual aid

The Durham Bulls were benched this summer, but not mascot Wool E. Bull. Daniela Schneider gave us a glimpse of how busy the local favorite was, from helping get food to needy families to spreading safety advice to people stuck indoors.

McDonald’s forced goodbye

Few have done more good in Durham than TROSA founder Kevin McDonald. The addiction treatment center he founded has offered thousands a shot at recovery. But health issues forced him to let go, Chris Kuo explained.

Sustaining Mass

Unable to worship inside, the Duke Catholic Center relocated services to a parking garage. Everything about Mass was changed and exactly the same, Dryden Quigley and Henry Haggart found.

Protecting the polls

What got the Durham County elections director out the door by 5 am this pandemic? Booming drums, violin swells and electric guitar helped Derek Bowens get moving to keep voting accessible to all, Rebecca Torrence discovered.

Curbside everything

When forced to quarantine after possible coronavirus exposures, Durham residents could still cast ballots this fall. Michaela Towfighi successfully voted curbside, with help from an affidavit and a helper named Kate.

An error’s toll

Residents knew for months that Durham police mistakenly pointed guns at young playmates at an apartment complex. Body camera footage released this fall brought home the terror the boys and their parents endured that day, Charlie Zong and Cameron Oglesby found.

A chosen home

Duke University students come and go, with just a few tagging Durham their new hometown. Ninth Street, and the creative people it attracts, won Rose Wong’s heart.

More than a hashtag

Who is Durham defense lawyer and Twitter sensation T. Greg Toucette? A rascal, a reformer, a crusader for justice and — sometimes — a pain, Chris Kuo shared.

At top: A Polaroid view of a stretch Ninth Street by Rose Wong